If one of the oldest and oft-quoted maxims of the wine world—“what grows together, goes together” commandment—is still trustworthy, then coastal wines of the Mediterranean are due for a breakout year.
Consider the current trends: Openfire cooking. North African and Middle Eastern spices. Ancient grains. And veggiecentric preparations.
They all yearn for the intensely bright and clean vinos produced in ancient winemaking regions across the Mediterranean.
Whether the region is in Turkey, Greece, Malta, North Africa, Corsica or Israel, you’ll find quality, under-the-radar wines that can lure young guests, build headturning wine lists and impress well-heeled regulars. Provided, that is, you know how to sell them to customers accustomed to Californian, Italian and French standbys.
The Ultimate Ice Breaker
When the French-inspired DB Bistro morphed into Boulud Sud Miami in January 2018, Haunah Klein was tasked with developing a more Mediterranean heavy wine list.
Her first step? Ensuring that her staff could properly pronounce obscure varietals. She created a phonetic-based pronunciation guide and followed up with YouTube videos.
Klein opened with relatively inexpensive wines that people could associate with a stunning locale—assyrtikos evoking Santorini and nerellos from sun-baked Sicily. She wanted bottles people could take a chance on and ones she could replace if they didn’t click. “Generally,” she says, “the sweet spot for these wines are $15 to $16 at cost.” Try starting there, then moving up to something pricier, like a Bianco Gentile 2014 from Antoine Arena in Corsica, which clocks in at approximately $45 per bottle.
In some cases, regulars have become so enamored with a region that they return to try everything that fits that profile. “These wines give servers the opportunity to really engage with guests, to have a conversation that people actually remember,” says Klein.
At Aviv in Portland, owner Tal Caspi fortifies his list with Israeli wines from the Golan Heights because they pair flawlessly with plant-based offerings and provide a feeling of pure escapism.
“There’s a romantic element to these wines,” says Casip, “We want people to feel like they’re being transported to Tel Aviv, that they’re getting a complete Israeli dining experience.”
Pick a Region
At Estiatorio Milos in Las Vegas, head sommelier Ronald Buyukliev only pours Greek wines, in part because ultrapremium producers tend to retail for around $35 a bottle. They taste great and make diners feel like they’ve scored an incredible deal. “These wines are an insane value,” he says. “Nobody remembers yet another generic California cab. But they do remember these wines.”
Best of all, diners’ eyes light up when they hear how a modestly priced wine such as a xinomavro allows them to enjoy a Nebbiolo-like experience at a steep discount. Buyukliev, for example, likes the 2013 Kir-Yianni Ramnista.
At El Five in Denver, Wine Director Kelley Pottle Graham has been impressed by Moroccan wines. She says something like a Domaine Ouled Thaleb white blend (Faranah/Clairette) with its subtle citrus notes, works as a weightier substitute for Sauvignon blanc and pairs beautifully with of-the-moment offerings like shellfish, hummus and spiced cauliflower.
Plus, the stories behind these wines are tailor-made for social media posts. “If you try a Moroccan wine for the first time, believe me you’ll have a great story to share,” says Graham.
Strike a Grand Bargain
Eduard Seitan, a partner at One Off Hospitality and wine steward at Avec in Chicago, has been championing unoaked or neutrally oaked wines from underappreciated Mediterranean producers for over two decades. Think young vine Syrah/Cab blend from Chateau Musar in Lebanon or a nielluccio-grenache blend from Domaine Giacometti in Corsica.
By trusting his palate, he’s forged relationships with quality producers and haggled down prices, further reducing the costs of already inexpensive wines from across the globe.
“I really wanted it to be a value wine list, where people can come every day or twice a week and not go broke,” he says. As a result, his staff can sample a wide array of styles and promote their favorites. This, in turn, produces impassioned recommendations that often embolden guests to sign up for Avec’s “island wine” dinners.
While pairing Mediterranean wines with Mediterranean cuisine is a slam dunk, sommelier Sarah Snyder of Commonwealth in San Francisco says these wines pair brilliantly with cuisines that often clash with traditional varietals.
She’s found that a weighty and aromatic Greek roditis (a pink-skinned grape best known for whites) pairs even better with spicy curries than a typical French semillion or New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. And Slovenian whites—perhaps a Burja Estate blend like its Bela—marry well with asparagus, nut butters and vegetablecentric flatbreads.
“The fun part,” says Snyder, “is when guests turn around and look at you, and say, ‘I had no idea it would be this good.’”
HOW TO TALK UP THE REGION
- Spin a yarn, whether it’s about the volcanic terroir of Sicily or the ancient wine-making heritage of places like Turkey, Israel and Palestine.
- Compare wines on the list with more traditional or highly coveted varietals, e.g. try framing agioritikos as a dry merlot.
- Tap into the “natural wines” trend by highlighting how producers limit sulfur, rarely inoculate and adhere to organic or biodynamic guidelines.
- Project knowledge and confidence. If servers know what they’re selling and offer short descriptors, it’s often a done deal.